The image that’s been sticking in my mind lately is being waist-deep in the Potomac river, wading down through mud and sharp stones and strange junk twisting around my ankles as I move through the water. It’s under the old aqueduct ruin at the end of K Street, where the city turns into the woods. Old factories got turned into fancy open-plan lofts and condos, but the river’s edge, twenty feet away, is still raggedy and a little bit dangerous.
There are cars in the distance, and cars also across the river, and rumbling overhead over Key Bridge, connecting Washington to Virginia. But at the water it’s quiet. Bikes humming across nearby, but I can’t think of sounds. The river is grey with morning push and pull, and there’s a silver light suffusing the horizon. It’s hot, and the river smells like woods, and also what happens when a city’s refuse is bathed in rain and trickles through the gutters, but especially woods.
Coach is standing behind me on the dock, or maybe he’s gone off somewhere. He launched me, and my family is far away—miles across the city. Here I’ve suddenly become alone, without the reference point for where other people are. I’ve suddenly turned into the subject of my own myth: a mermaid, primeval, like something out of Wagner or the Greeks. I take a step forward, and the water pushes around me. My head’s only two feet over the water, and everything looks different from here.
That whole summer was beautiful, actually. Around that time I started writing in verse again. It’s something I pick up every few years: tunelessly, awkwardly, but without embarrassment, because sometimes rhyming is the best way to express the harmony of the world coming into alignment. Now that I’m in a phase of serious confusion and alienation, it’s fun to skim through those poems. I get to watch moments run by again, like in a movie. Once I wrote, after an August morning when there was mist on the river and the sun lit it up so it was gold: Like a fish I leap before me / wreathed with heat and morning’s glory.
I was an athlete full-time, and kept myself entertained between training sessions, frequent meals, and midday naps by listening to audiobooks. Mostly I stuck with English mystery novels, but every once in awhile I’d play back over a Zizek lecture, which was a reminder that I wasn’t fully committed to the project of being a focused, cheerful, and rational person. My teammates are still my favorite people in the world, but I’m not like them. Dabbling in philosophy and social theory—even the ridiculous, theatrical kind—distracted me, and I’d find myself looking out the window on a bus, wondering.
Stepping away from the river and its world was difficult, and I still pine for it sometimes. Although I’m long since out of training and out of shape, I still have a boyish ripple of muscle in my shoulders and my back, and I still get great pleasure out of feats of strength and endurance. Every once in a while I’ll set out and run up into the woods, heaving rocks shot-put style and breathing deep, slow, and painful into the very recesses of my unaccustomed core. I’ll clutch at door handles or the trim above doorways as though they were the shaft of the paddle, and lift-heave-swing-whip my core around, imagining the herons, the sound of rain, and the resistance as I kick into a steady rhythm. I could go—I could go back now, miles down river, to where a bend and another bend takes you toward the Chesapeake Bay, and down, beyond, into the Atlantic.
Now my work is different, and colored by different passions and waves of experience. Rather than lunging through the adrenaline of a sprint and gleefully spinning with the endorphins following a long haul, my mind sparkles with caffeine, with literary allusions, and with sudden spirals of insight and perspective. My new spaces of solitude and adventure are the dusty basements of libraries, the echoing halls of college buildings deserted over school holidays, and the witty, privileged repartee of the old guard of tenured faculty at dinners, post-lecture, or conferences out of town. I can keep up, which is, for now, its own rush of competitive triumph.
This role hits closer to home, though, and it’s harder to shake off stress or disappointment because I’ve made a long-term commitment to it. The schedule is more demanding, because while practice before sunrise and after sunset and mid-day on weekends was grueling and without rest or relief, my work writing and thinking has crept into my dreams and my pastimes, and if I’m awake and moving I could—should, really—be writing, too. I’m flooded with ideas, hip-deep in thoughts and questions worth investigating, but on my own, curled up in bed or hiding from myself in the corner of a café. There’s no sanguine coach to bark and cajole, no team; only my cautious, distant advisor. My parents, though supportive of this next great project of mine, are noncommittal in their opinions. I’m alone at sea.